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Ebooks Rewrite the Rules of Publishing

Thanks to e-readers, tablets and smartphones, ebooks are increasing in popularity with readers -- and changing the way writers share their work with others.

"Ebooks now account for about 30 percent of the U.S. book market. Canada, the UK and Australia will probably hit that number within the next three years," says Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. Smashwords is a leading distributor of ebooks that are self-published by independent authors.

Ebooks are gaining popularity just as quickly with authors. "Ebooks are faster, easier and less expensive to self-publish than print books," Coker says.

There's no doubt that this is a time of transition for many people in the publishing world, whether they're readers, writers or publishers.

"It's interesting. Part of me is so excited about the fact that we live in such an amazing time of change," says Tellulah Darling. She is the author of several novels aimed at the young adult market that are enjoyed by adult readers as well.

"As an author, I can bypass the years it could potentially take to find an agent, have them submit my novel, and hopefully make a sale. But it's frustrating, too. We all tell stories -- every day, all the time. It's how we make sense of our world. That doesn't mean, though, that everyone should be racing to publish books."

Whether done independently or through a publisher, releasing an ebook probably won't make you an overnight success. But some writers have enjoyed great success with ebooks. And they don't have to rely on the traditional ways of getting the word out about their books.

Positive reader feedback helped Hugh Howey turn a novelette called Wool into a publishing deal.

"It was entirely by accident," Howey says. "When it took off, I attributed the success of the story to its [short] size and low cost, so I continued that trend with the next two in the series. I really was stumbling blind through the entire process."

His fan base grew along with sales of what became a five-part series. Publishers took notice. "I think the main draw was the proven demand for the story. Wool took off almost entirely due to word-of-mouth. Publishers wanted to gather that chatter and enthusiasm under their tent."

Howey fielded multiple offers for book deals, but chose one that allowed him to retain the rights to keep selling the ebooks.

One reason ebooks are becoming more popular with authors is because they're not too difficult to do. They're faster and less expensive to produce than self-published print or print-on-demand books.

"No technical skills are required," Coker says. "All you need is a word processor and the patience and willingness to follow simple instructions." He's even written a free ebook about formatting and creating ebooks, The Smashwords Style Guide.

"Formatting and uploading an ebook is no more difficult than learning most other computer-related activities," Howey says. "Google and FAQs are your friends. But it does take some patience and energy." He notes that some writers might want to hire out those one-time tasks.

Darling taught herself how to format her first manuscript. "I didn't want to try and produce an ebook from Word or Pages, so I bought a copy of InDesign and spent a week taking tutorials on [a site with online training videos] in order to teach myself how to use it," she says.

"I also spent months scouring the web, learning about everything from font choices to layout to pricing and distribution. I did a ton of tests regarding what the best look for my novel was. And then I outsourced the cover to a designer since I knew that was a skill set that was beyond me."

While some people pay to have their ebooks published, there are plenty of free options, too.

"Ebook publishing can be free. At Smashwords, for example, we created a free ebook publishing and distribution platform," Coker says.

"We provide the free publishing and distribution tools that authors use on a self-serve basis. We distribute ebooks to the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony and other retailers. We earn a commission only if the book sells to retailers. We don't sell services or publishing packages. We don't employ sales people. By making our business commission-based, it means our interests are fully aligned with the authors' interests."

Coker suggests steering clear of places that try to sell you expensive publishing packages.

"If a sales person is calling you, run," he adds.

Instead, invest your money in attractive cover art for your book -- unless you happen to be an artist or graphic designer. Coker says good cover design services usually range between $50 and $300.

"If someone's trying to sell you a cover for thousands of dollars, or a package that costs thousands of dollars, they're most likely going to rip you off."

Finishing an ebook won't make it sell, so you need to consider how you'll distribute your book. Like Coker's company, there are distributors who are paid based on actual sales.

"I used established ebook distributors," Howey says. "There's nothing preventing me from selling ebooks directly from my website, but I find the discoverability and convenience of the Kindle and iBookstores more than make up for the 50 percent of sale price they take."

Darling's books are available in both print and electronic forms, so she's been able to compare how well they do.

"No comparison. My ebooks far outsell my print books," Darling says.

You might think that because she writes young adult books her audience would be entirely kids who've grown up with e-readers, and who appreciate the lower cost of ebooks.

"I probably have more adult readers than teen ones," she says. "It's a genre with a lot of crossover in its reader demographic. That said, many of those adult readers still enjoy their books on their e-readers."

As popular as ebooks are, Howey says their growth is beginning to level off now.

"Ebooks had triple-digit growth for a couple of years, and now it's down to double-digit growth. My guess is that we'll see 60 percent of the market go to ebooks eventually, but print will never die," Howey says.

"Book publishing will remain profitable, but more and more authors will choose to retain digital rights. That's going to mean far more writers are making a living wage while many in publishing lose their jobs.

"I hate to think of anyone losing a job, but even more will gain a job. Transition is painful and exciting at the same time. I, for one, am thrilled to be writing and reading during this incredible revolution."

Ebooks aren't only popular with authors and their readers. Publishers and retailers see an upside, too.

"Ebooks dramatically reduce the cost of book production and distribution for publishers," Coker says.

"With ebooks, there is no inventory. The publisher ships one digital copy to each retailer, and then the retailer duplicates additional copies each time the book is sold. With print books, by contrast, the publisher must invest in a lot of inventory, ship it to bookstores, and then hope the books aren't returned unsold."

Coker notes that roughly 30 percent of books are returned to publishers, unsold, which is very costly to publishers.

Darling points out that there are a lot of talented self-published writers, but there are also a lot who haven't taken the time to hone their writing skills. Ebooks also make it easier for less polished authors to publish books that might not be ready for the marketplace.

Self-publishing tools help people publish books, but don't help with the actual writing.

"As an author, your job is to write that great book that wows your readers. If you don't wow your readers, no amount of marketing will help you reach a lot of readers," Coker says. "Respect your readers by publishing a professional, well-edited and proofed book."

Speaking from experience, Howey advises writers to be patient. Just because you publish an ebook doesn't mean it will sell well. "It won't happen with your first book. More importantly: it doesn't have to happen during an initial release window."

Wool took time to build an audience. The good news, Howey says, is that ebooks "will not go out of print and they won't be taken off the digital bookshelves, which is why writers should concentrate on writing their best works and getting them out there. Publish and move on. You have the rest of your life to market what you've written."

Offers free tools to help authors distribute, market and track sales of their works.

Ebooks 101
A guide on how to produce quality ebooks

Ebooks Publishing Resources
Suggestions, tips, advice and more for eBook authors

My Advice to Aspiring Authors
Advice from Hugh Howey

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